From 1950 to 1970, Aberdeen, Maryland’s Ralph Smith was one of the most successful Stock Car drivers in the East. But in addition to always running at the front of the pack, the immensely popular Smith was one of the smoothest drivers of his era and also regarded as a classy gentleman who was well-liked by the fans and his fellow competitors.
Driving George Heffner’s white and red No. 88 Putty Hill Speed Shop 1937 Ford coupe out of Baltimore, Smith won the Free State Stock Car Racing Association title in 1954 & 1955 as the top Modified driver in points at Dorsey, Ritchie and Hagerstown Speedways in Maryland, and Mason-Dixon Speedway in Sylmar, Pennsylvania. Plus, he was Dorsey’s 1955 champion.
Heffner also built a special No. 88 1934 Ford coupe for the one-mile New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse where Smith bested Empire State regulars like Irish Jack Murphy and Cliff Kotary to win 1955’s big Labor Day New York State Fair race.
In 1956, Smith and Baltimore’s Ken Marriott – NASCAR’s 1957 National Modified Champion – were teammates and they won races at various dirt and asphalt tracks throughout the Middle Atlantic region with Marriott in the No. 88 and Smith in the No. 88 Jr.
In 1957, Smith drove the No. 88 – which sported beautifully painted red flames on its hood and front fenders – on the old 4.1-mile Beach-Road Course in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he and the now-No. 188 started 73rd in the 125-mile 78-car contest but dropped out early and finished 46th place. Things, however, turned out much better as Smith won the 1957 Modified titles at the old half-mile dirt Vineland and Alcyon Speedways in New Jersey.
In 1958, Smith started 17th in the No. 88 in the last Modified race on the old Daytona Beach layout and finished 18th in the 71-car race. But when the Northern season began he took over the Neal Williams red No. 44 formerly driven by fellow EMPA Hall of Famer Al Tasnady.
While Tasnady drove the No. 44 as a 1937 Ford sedan, Vineland car-builder Williams – who was noted for his excellent craftsmanship – built Smith the 1937 Ford coupe that he always favored and the new No. 44 won races on the dirt at Alcyon, Nazareth (Pa.) Raceway and Orange County Fair Speedway in Middletown, New York (10 wins on the “hard clay” in 1958-1959). And, as per the period, Smith also won with his ride on the nearly-paved Vineland Speedway.
Smith’s résumé also shows two efforts in the 250-mile NASCAR Modified race at Daytona International Speedway. In 1961, 26 of 60 starters were running at the finish as he and his No. 97 1957 Chevrolet came home in 25th place. But in 1962’s 54-car race he only completed 18 laps before his No. 66 1953 Studebaker was sidelined by a fire.
In the early 1960s, Smith began racing the “30 x 90” Central Pennsylvania “bugs” – the Super-Modified-styled, cut-down early 1930s Ford coupes that sat on proprietary 30-inch x 90-inch home-built chassis. While these cars were much different that the Modifieds from which he came, he still found his way into the winner’s circle at Lincoln, Selinsgrove and Susquehanna Speedways, and at the fast half-mile dirt track in Hagerstown.
In 1967, Smith returned to the Modifieds in Pee Wee Pobletts’ maroon No. 36 coupe that sported the likeness of Chief Pontiac in deference to the Pontiac engine under its hood.
Then, in 1970, he began what would be his last year as a race-driver in the orange No. 421 P & D Diesel Ford coupe that was owned by Philadelphia’s Bill Hence.
In this ride on April 4, Ralph Smith – who died on July 24, 2005 – won his final feature race at the old Reading (Pa.) Fairgrounds. It was an exciting show for everyone as the Maryland driver bested fellow EMPA Hall of Famer Joe Kelly in a wheel-to-wheel battle over the last half of the 30-lap headliner before he claimed the victory by less than a car length.